Ford Prefect, the Douglas Adams' galactic hitch-hiking philosopher, once observed that, “time is an illusion; lunchtime doubly so.”
As the end of the year approaches we ask ourselves, “where has the time gone?” Tempus does, it seems, fugit, and as we get older, it appears to do so with increasing alacrity.
“Every year is getting shorter
Never seem to find the time…”
- Pink Floyd, “Time”
At this time of year (it’s mid December as I write) it’s traditional to look back over the year just gone and reflect for a moment on the significant things that have happened to and around us. The wise ones among us probably keep some kind of journal in which they record not only what happened - at the time when it was happening - but also what they could learn from the lessons that life brings. Those less wise will have to rely on memory - their own, and the memories of others.
I’ve written elsewhere about the many benefits of keeping a reflective journal, so I won’t beat that particular drum again.
However we do it, looking back and reflecting on the past year isn’t simply an exercise in nostalgia (if it’s been a particularly uplifting year) or relief that it’s over (if it’s been a particularly trying one).
We tend to group the things that happen to us into one of two categories: good or bad.
Good things are those that we find pleasant, that have made us feel good about ourselves in some way.
Bad things are those that we find unpleasant, that have knocked us down in some way or made us feel less good about ourselves.
We want more of the good things, and we want fewer or none of the bad. We look back fondly on the good things that have happened, but we’d often rather forget the bad things.
The truth is, there are neither good things nor bad things; the things that happen to us are what they are until we go and stick a label, good or bad, on them.
We can’t control a lot of what happens, but we certainly can control how we choose to feel about it.
If something happens to me that I don’t like, and I call it a “bad thing,” then I’m setting myself up to feel very negative about that thing. Maybe I’ll get angry about it, or depressed, or despondent, or start feeling as though I’m a helpless victim being abused by an unfair world. “Why does this crap always happen to me? What have I done to deserve this?” And so on.
That’s not a recipe for my peace and wellbeing.
What if, instead of choosing to look on the incident as a bad, negative thing, I chose to see it as a challenge that life has thrown my way? Now there’s no need for me to feel like a victim. Now I can confront whatever has happened and look for solutions, ways of overcoming the obstacle that has appeared in front of me. I can also learn whatever lessons there might be, whether that’s something specific to the incident or it’s another contribution to my development of wisdom.
Now, I no longer look back on the year just past and call it good or bad. It was as it was. What I need to ask myself is, what did I learn from it? What contributed the most to my progress towards my own personal growth? Did I maintain my equanimity - my mental balance - through everything that came my way? What can I do to ensure that next year I get better at that?
One of the lessons that life has taught me is that when I maintain my equanimity, I also maintain my sense of personal peace and wellbeing. Therefore, if I don’t want to feel constantly angry or depressed or despondent or any other negative emotion, I’d better pay attention to finding ways of staying in balance.
This year just past has been called “the year of polycrisis,” referring to the many so-called crises that have come our way. If we insist on focusing on these things and on calling them “bad,” we are setting ourselves up for feeling very gloomy about where we are. If, on the other hand, we observe these events as opportunities for us to learn and to grow, we’re going to feel a whole lot more positive.
That’s not to say that everything is rosy. Some very bad shit has gone down in the past year, and is still going down right now. We might look at the ongoing, pointless and bloody war in Ukraine, or the global climate crisis, to pick a couple of random examples, and we might say to ourselves, “that’s not right, that’s not okay, and they ought to do something about it.”
What if, instead of feeling despondent and helpless in the face of these events, we listened to our feelings of grief and anger and instead of allowing those feelings to carry us down into a black hole, we used them to spur ourselves into action?
It’s not right? It’s not okay?
Well then, my friends, instead of choosing to sit on your backside feeling helpless, choose to do something about it.
There is no THEY. There is only US: that’s you and I and everyone else on the planet. And we are all responsible for our own actions, and our inactions, too.
Channel your grief, your anger, your outrage and let them propel you into action. That way, you get to avoid sliding down into a black hole, and at the same time there’s a chance that what you do - you and others like you - will change the situation for the better.
“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
- John Stuart Mill
Let me end by asking you this:
When you look back over the year just past, how often did you label something as “bad”? How often did you think, “they ought to do something about that”? How often did you allow negative thoughts and emotions drag you down into a place of unhappiness, of victimhood, of helplessness and inaction? And what will you do in the new year to stop that from happening, to keep your mental balance, and to use your feelings as a guide to help you to take action when something isn’t right?
If you’ve got some shit going down in your life, ask yourself what you can do to change it. And then change it. The choice is yours: victim or victor, zero or hero, stuck in the status quo or reaching for the stars.
And so, as the year draws to a close, it only remains for me to wish you all the compliments of the season and the very best for the new year to come.
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
May the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
May your God hold you in the palm of His hand.